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Descendants of slaves, masters to meet at Gaston County reunion

By Joe DePriest
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  • Pervasive slavery

    In 1860, there were about 4 million slaves and 393,000 slaveholders in the South, experts say. Eighty-eight percent of the masters held fewer than 20 slaves and nearly 50 percent held fewer than five.



GASTONIA Sam Love repeats the story at every family reunion.

It’s about how three young brothers were kidnapped in West Africa, sold as slaves in Jackson, Miss., and wound up working for a white family on a farm in Gaston County.

After emancipation, the brothers stayed on with their former master, a farmer who became a textile pioneer. Tradition says the brothers helped build local cotton mills, including the giant Loray plant in 1900.

In retelling the story he’s researched for years, Love, 77, of Charlotte hopes to keep inspiring his large family, particularly younger members.

He revived the Love family reunion tradition in 1994 when about 200 people came, including a descendant from South Carolina of the master who owned one of the slave brothers. Since then, Love has located from across the U.S. more than 600 descendants of all three brothers. Love expects a record attendance at this year’s reunion and has invited a local descendant of the white slaveowners.

Jim Love, 67, of Mount Holly is coming to the Aug. 10 event at Trinity-Unity AME Zion Church outside Gastonia. The co-author of a recent illustrated history of Mount Holly, Love will share stories about his family members who helped found Gaston County’s textile industry.

“I want him to sit down and talk to us,” said Sam Love, a retired postal worker. “I want him to give us a little bit of history about the white Loves. What he can tell us will expand our story.”

Reunions that bring together descendants of slaves and masters are relatively rare events, said Robert Hinton, retired professor of Africana studies at New York University.

A Raleigh native, Hinton, 71, was chief historian and associate producer of director Godfrey Cheshire’s 2008 documentary “Moving Midway: A Southern Plantation in Transit.” He’s also a descendant of slaves owned by Cheshire’s family in Wake County. In the film, descendants of masters and slaves reunite. A New York Times critic called it a “lovely, touching scene.”

Hinton sees such encounters as positive for blacks and whites. But as they gather to look into their shared past they should “be prepared to talk about slavery.”

“Most Americans don’t have a sense of slavery’s role in the founding of this country,” Hinton said. “Very few people wanted to talk about it.”

But the conversations can help blacks “get a better sense of who they are,” Hinton said. “And it’s important for whites to understand how they reached the socio and economic positions they are in today.”

Cheshire thinks the reunions create a positive energy.

“We’re moving forward and coming to know each other and our true racial history,” he said. “This improves our understanding of who we are.”

Keeping promise

Sam Love began his research in the early 1970s.

“My father made me promise to get the history of the family down,” he said. “And it was a promise I wanted to keep.”

Over the years, Love studied census records and wills and other materials. He visited libraries around the region, and went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library and the library in Jackson, Miss.

Combining research with family tradition, he fleshed out a narrative.

Love discovered the young slave brothers – Peter, Berry and Harry – came to New Orleans by way of Haiti in the mid 1850s.

They were sold on the auction block in Jackson, Miss., to a Falls family from Amite County. The Fallses later sold the brothers to Andrew Love of Gaston County. After he died, they went to Love’s son, R.C.G. Love, known as “Grier.”

In 1949, UNC Press published a short biography “R.C.G. Love: A Builder of the New South,” written by his son, Harvard professor James Lee Love.

Named after the family pastor, Robert Calvin Grier, Love ran a farm near Gastonia named Fairview. He later became a merchant and in 1888 co-founded Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Co., the city’s first textile plant.

The biography mentions the slave brothers and has a photo of Peter Love.

Besides farm chores, Sam Love believes Peter Love also worked on the Loray Mill construction project. The name of the mill that would employ 3,500 at its peak came from the owners, John Love and George Gray. Love was the son of Grier Love.

At the reunion, Jim Love of Mount Holly, the only white master descendant expected to attend, will talk about his pioneering textile family and the recent loss of buildings the slave brothers may have worked on.

The Fairview farm house built before the Civil War and remnants of Gastonia Manufacturing Co. came down about six months ago.

However, one building still stands. The Loray Mill, later known as the Firestone, is being restored as a residential/commercial development.

Jim Love welcomes the chance to share these stories. But he’s also eager to hear from the African-American Loves.

“We can learn from each other,” he said. “We made history together.”

Connecting with past

The reunion committee, including Sam Love, recently met Jim Love of Mount Holly for the first time. On the grounds at Trinity church, they introduced themselves, exchanged old photos, and explored the small cemetery

As thunder rumbled in the distance and cicadas sang in the nearby woods, they walked past headstones bearing the Love family name.

In an open area with no markers they paused at the spot where tradition says Peter Love was buried in the 1930s.

Since childhood, Sam Love has come here to connect with the past.

He believes his ancestor’s spirit will be looking down as descendants of slaves and masters come together on the church grounds.

“I think he’ll be overjoyed,” Love said.

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